University of Rochester

Turning Negatives into Positives: Can Racial Images Be Reclaimed?

March 29, 2006

Three scholars who have studied racial stereotypes and imagery will contribute to a symposium on how African Americans are represented in art on Friday, April 7, in the Gowen Room of Wilson Commons on the University of Rochester's River Campus. Individual presentations followed by a panel discussion on the theme of "Reclaiming Negative Imagery" will be held from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The symposium is free and open to the public.

The Frederick Douglass Institute for African and African-American Studies and the Graduate Program in Visual and Cultural Studies at the University of Rochester are sponsoring the program as part of their continuing series on Visual Culture & the African Diaspora.

Among the guest speakers will be Michael D. Harris, associate professor of art history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is best known for his textbook on African-American art, titled Colored Pictures: Race and Visual Representation (2003), and as co-author of A History of Art in Africa (2000), among other publications. His work has been exhibited in galleries and museums in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. As an artist, he produces images that accentuate and reflect on the lives of African Americans and their values. Harris was a member of the AfriCobra collective, which created community art projects such as Chicago's Wall of Respect.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, associate professor of American art at the University of Pennsylvania, writes about and studies issues of race, gender, and class in American art and architecture. Her book, Seeing the Unspeakable: The Art of Kara Walker (2004) deals with the work of the African-American artist known for her black-and-white silhouetted figures that portray race, sexuality, and violence. Shaw's current project involves a museum exhibition titled "Portraits of a People: Picturing African Americans in the 19th Century."

Michael Ray Charles, associate professor of art in the College of Fine Arts at the University of Texas at Austin, is known widely for his paintings that investigate racial stereotypes drawn from American advertising, billboards, and television commercials. Sambo, Aunt Jemima, and Uncle Tom are among the negative images that Charles exaggerates and compares to contemporary mass-media depictions of black youths and athletes in his art.

Each guest will speak for about 30 minutes, followed by an opportunity for questions. A noontime discussion with all three professors will be moderated by A. Joan Saab, associate professor of art history/visual and cultural studies and director of the Graduate Program in Visual and Cultural Studies at the University of Rochester.

"All three of them work within this world of reclaiming negative images for positive uses," she said. The group conversation will touch on many aspects of representation and race.

For more information, contact the Graduate Program in Visual and Cultural Studies at (585) 275-9249.